Free and fair

John Crace

The Guardian, 29 May 2001

Each year vast amounts of commercial money flow into university coffers. Without clear government guidelines, says John Crace, independent research could become increasingly rare

There's been plenty of hand-wringing and heart-bleeding, but up till now precious little action. So Richard Smith's recent resignation from his post as professor of medical journalism at Nottingham University in protest at the institution's links with British American Tobacco came as a rare and welcome example of someone putting his money where his mouth was - and taking a principled stand on the ethics of academic responsibility.

Except there was no money involved, as Smith's post was both part-time and unpaid. Which perhaps made his decision to leave a trifle easier; it has one wondering how many other academics would have loved to follow suit but, with families and mortgages to support, were left to choke on BAT's filtered largesse.

Big business and universities are a done deal. Scarcely a week goes by without some university announcing the creation of a new sponsored chair, and no one in higher education believes it is practical or necessarily desirable to go back to the old days when all research monies came out of the public purse.

But what has gone missing in the new commercial era is the transparency; comparatively few universities seem to have any written guidelines in place for processing each approach, and the deals go through on an ad hoc basis with an assumption of academic independence but, all too frequently, no guarantees.

Academics often comment on the imbalance between the might of the corporations' lawyers and the naivety of those of their university in drawing up contracts. "When Vodafone offered 'free' mobiles to some of our research students, in return for their ideas about future research development, no one checked that students' intellectual property rights had been protected," says Dr Gillian Evans, lecturer in theology at Cambridge University and public policy secretary for the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards (CAFAS).

"I have raised this issue with Alec Broers [vice-chancellor of Cambridge] as he is a non-executive director of Vodafone." Dr Evans was not wholly reassured by their conversation. "Many universities and academics are desperate to get their hands on the money so that they can pursue their research," says Dr David Packham, lecturer in the Material Research Centre at Bath University and one of the organisers of a recent conference on the corruption of academic science held by the council.

"There is a feeling that the balance of power between commercial organisations and universities has shifted, and that the universities now feel themselves to be the junior partner. As a result, it is sometimes difficult to insist on such basic freedoms as the right to publish research findings. And it's society that loses out."

A case in point is Dr Nancy Olivieri, Canada's cause célèbre. In the early 1990s, she reported favourable preliminary data on a drug called Deferipone, which had been developed to treat thalassemia. Three years on, Dr Olivieri's research indicated that far from helping patients, the drug might actively harm them, whereupon Apotex Pharmaceuticals, the drug company that helped fund her research, threatened her with legal action if she presented or published her results.

Apotex believed that Dr Olivieri was obliged to keep her findings secret, but after five years of wrangling she decided to put her career on the line and publish in the New England Journal of Medicine, amid claims from Apotex that she had made research errors and put an inaccurate spin on the data.

And it's still going on. Only recently David Healy, a British psycho-pharmacist, had his job offer at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) at the University of Toronto rescinded, as a result, he says, of linking Prozac to suicide. In an email from Sidney Goldbloom, another professor at CAMH, Healy was told, "We do not feel your approach is compatible with the goals for development of the academic and clinical resource that we have." The centre receives substantial funding from Eli Lilly, the manufacturer of Prozac, though Eli Lilly denies having exerted any influence and the university of Toronto denies that Prozac was connected with its decision .

Discrediting the academic is a favoured trick among organisations eager to shift the spotlight away from themselves. In April last year the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) cancelled a £250,000 research contract with the LSE halfway through its three-year lifespan, claiming that "some of the methodology wasn't quite hitting the spot". The researcher, Thanos Mergoupis, and his assistant both lost their jobs, as the LSE failed either to enforce the contract or to support the research findings.

"No effort was made to establish whether the methodology was flawed," says Evans. "This case illustrates just how much academic independence can be compromised by short-term contracts. Say the wrong thing and you can be out of a job."

For the most part, business and academia rub along very nicely. The universities are happy to get the money and the commercial links, while the businesses get respectability and cutting-edge research, and academic independence is taken as a given.

Sir Richard Friend is both Cavendish professor of physics at Cambridge University and founder and director of Cambridge Display Technology (CDT), a company founded to exploit the commercial possibilities of light-emitting polymers. He sees no conflict of interest between the two.

"My contract with the university is governed by statute and is unaffected by anything I do outside that," he says. "As long as I fulfil my academic commitments, the university is happy for me to dirty my hands with industry. The partnership between the university and Cambridge Display Technology has been synergistic.

"None of the research work is governed by CDT criteria, as all our researchers are free to follow their own direction, but CDT has benefited from the research and in turn the researchers have benefited from the advances CDT has made." Even so, it still raises the question of how an academic can have two full-time jobs.

Anglia Polytechnic University (APU) have been running engineering courses tailored for and sponsored by Ford since 1983, but Anne Seaman, the university's director of enterprise and innovation, has never had any cause for concern.

"Both Ford and the university have always insisted on our having academic independence," she says. "Students are free to criticise the company; indeed, these critiques are one of the things Ford values about the relationship. In fact, on at least one occasion Ford has reviewed its working practices on the basis of a student's dissertation. The only time when confidentiality ever becomes an issue is when students are told of Ford's development plans, and there's a tacit agreement that these should not be divulged."

Not all academic arrangements are as straightforward as this, though, and Cafas is now calling for a register of interests, similar to the MPs' register in the House of Commons, whereby every department and academic should openly account for every penny of outside commercial funding. Moreover, it also wants the government to establish a set of guidelines for use by all universities in processing outside funding, and to create an independent watchdog to name and shame those universities that fail to abide by these guidelines.

Cafas's concerns are echoed by the Association of University Teachers (AUT). "Cooperation between universities and business is highly desirable," says David Triesman, general secretary of the AUT, "but not at the price of academic freedom and independence. The intensity of the pressure on universities to secure commercial funding for research poses a serious risk to their integrity. There is an urgent need to produce a set of clear ethical guidelines to ensure that academics contribute their expertise without compromising their scholarly standards."

Evans believes there are many grey areas where matters get fudged. "Laboratory space which is publicly funded as part of the university's infrastructure," she says, "may be in casual or private use by industry, with frightening health and safety legal implications, as well as loss of facilities for the university's own scientists.

"Cambridge is particularly prone to keeping things vague. Sir Alec Broers, Cambridge's vice-chancellor, was given permission to be chairman of the Cambridge Network, a consortium of assorted new technology enterprises, on the understanding that he did so in a personal capacity and not as vice-chancellor.

"Yet when I phoned the Network they seemed to be under the impression he was working for them in his capacity as vice-chancellor. Likewise, when the Hinduja affair hit the media, the university repeatedly denied any connection with the trustees of the Hinduja's Cambridge charitable trust. It turned out that several of the trustees were Cambridge heads of house [college]."

Evans believes that Cambridge should take a leaf out of Oxford's book - it has put formal guidelines in place. But even with these guidelines, Cafas acknowledges there are still many ethical issues that go unanswered, such as where universities stand on acceptable deals with unacceptable companies, and the tacit or sometimes vigorous suppression of research data. This is despite Universities UK guidelines, issued in 1992, that "under no circumstances should the university allow the sponsor the right to delay publication for an unrestricted period of time". For this reason Dr Packham appears pessimistic about even persuading universities to accept the guidelines.

"I get the impression," he says, "that Universities UK would not reissue the same advice today, as universities have to take a more commercial view." Professor Sir Howard Newby, president of UniversitiesUK, says there are no plans to revise the guidelines. But it's at governmental level that he sees the greatest hurdles. Because whatever the universities might want to do, the government can exert effective control through the purse strings.

"When we took these issues to the DfEE, they were politely received and immediately filed under inaction," Packham continues. "Indeed, there is ample evidence that government departments put clauses into research projects that enables them to control the research that comes out. One wonders why this might be, and the suspicion is that they don't want to be embarrassed by any results that might call in question government policy."

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